Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Inferno Canto V Part 2: Be Discerning in Your Reading
A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy
By Daniel Ross Goodman
Dante makes out three individual “carnal malefactor” shades coming toward him, lamenting and being born along by the relentless hurricane. “Master,” he asks Virgil. “Who are these people, whom this black air castigates so?”
The first of them, says Virgil, is Semiramis, who was an empress of Assyria during Dante’s time and had a reputation for being so extraordinarily licentious that “the lustful she made licit” in her realm’s laws. The next is Dido, Queen of Carthage, who fell in love with Aeneas and killed herself when he abandoned her. The third is “Cleopatra the voluptuous,” legendary for having been the last monarch of Egypt, and perhaps even more legendary for her notorious love affairs with Antony and Caesar.
Dante spots other famous figures whom he recognizes: Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta—the woman whose beauty “launched a thousand ships” when Paris of Troy abducted her, thereby setting off the Trojan War; and the great Greek warrior Achilles, whose love for Polyxena, the daughter of Priam (the last king of Troy), led to his death at the hands of Paris. He also sees Paris, the tragic hero Tristan, and over a thousand other shades Virgil points out to him who also lost their lives on account of love.
After Dante listens to Virgil recite the names of all of the men and women who pass before them, he is so overcome with pity to the point of being bewildered. He asks Virgil to tell him about two shades in particular that he notices—two shades who, together, seem to be as light as the wind. Virgil tells him that the shades themselves will be able to tell him about themselves once they get closer to them.
As soon as they are close enough to them, Dante raises his voice: “O ye weary souls!” he exclaims, “come speak to us, if you are able to!”
They come over to him from where Dido is, like two turtledoves flying through the air, and ask him who he is, thankful that a living being has taking pity on them. The two shades are a man and a woman—Paolo and Francesca, a couple during their lives, and still joined together in their afterlives. The woman speaks to Dante of the great passion she had for this man when they were living in Ravenna, and how it was their love that doomed them by leading to their murders; an even worse fate in Inferno awaits their murderer.
As Dante hears from these tormented souls, he bows his head down, lamenting to Virgil about how sorry he feels for these two souls, condemned to hell for what appears to be nothing more than pleasant thoughts and desire. He turns back to these shades, admitting to them that their story brings him to tears, and asks them to tell him a bit more of their story. What was the decisive moment, he wants to know, that led to your sin? What exactly was it that made you give in to your desire?
She tells him that one day she and her lover were reading for pleasure. They were reading a love story about Lancelot. They were alone, and without fear. From time to time while reading their eyes drew together. But it was only at one point when their resistance gave way. When they reached a scene in the story when the fictional hero kisses his love interest, her real-life lover planted a kiss upon her mouth…and “that day,” she concludes, “no farther did we read.”
While the woman was telling him this story, the man at her side was weeping; Dante, so overcome with pity, once again faints as if he is dying, and falls “like a dead body falls.”
Here in Canto V we meet perhaps the most memorable couple in all of Inferno: a man and woman who bonded over a book, but whose bond led to a disastrous affair and eventually to their doom. They were a real-life couple whose affair was one of the most scandalous tabloid-worthy stories of Dante’s day. The woman was Francesca da Polenta, the daughter of a powerful politician in Ravenna (the northern Italian city that Dante lived in for most of his life following his exile from Florence), and the man was Paolo Malatesta. They carried on their affair for four years. The problem was that Francesca was already married—to Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto, a northern Italian nobleman. When Gianciotto found out about the affair, he killed both of them. All three wound up in Hell—Francesca and Paolo in the circle of the Lustful, and Gianciotto in the circle of Betrayers (a far deeper circle of Hell—a circle reserved for sinners who are even worse than murderers).
Dante’s inclusion of Francesca and Paolo in Inferno may have been a way of piquing his readers’ interest in his poem. The story of their affair and their subsequent murder was the shocking celebrity sex-and-murder scandal of his day, the Middle Ages equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair with his housekeeper crossed with the O.J. Simpson murder trial. (Schwarzenegger’s affair occurred while he was Governor of California and married to Maria Shriver, a member of one of the most prominent political families in United States history, making the political repercussions of their ruptured relationship nearly as momentous in modern American politics as the ruptured da Polenta-Malatesta relationship was for medieval Italian politics.) But Dante did not include the story of Paolo and Francesca in The Divine Comedy for titillation alone. He was making a larger point—about the dangers associated with the kinds of cultural material we consume—and there could be no more vivid illustration of this point for his medieval audience than to see these two 14th century celebrity lovers suffering in Hell as a result of their poor choices in books.
Many of us today have been led to believe that any reading is good reading—likely from well-intentioned literacy campaigns encouraging parents and teachers to get their kids to read. These campaigns are worthwhile, as it is crucially important to cultivate a love of reading in children. But just as important as it is to get kids to read, it is equally as important—once they are interested in reading—to get them to choose the right books. And it is even more important that we continue to make the right choices in our reading as adults.
Not everything that glisters is gold, Shakespeare taught, and neither is all that is typeset, printed, and bound valuable. Book critics have made a living for centuries pointing out the aesthetic flaws of works that editors have deemed to be publishable material. But Dante’s point about bad books is not an aesthetic one—it is a moral, ethical, social, and psychological one: bad books can cause people to commit acts of appalling recklessness, leading to ruined relationships, impaired psyches, damaged communities, and diminished societies. Other authors have made similar points, though these lessons may have gotten lost amidst the dynamic and sympathetic manner in which they have portrayed their heroes (or, in some cases, antiheroes). Take, for example, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote, Cervantes is careful to mention that Quijote is led to embark on a reckless life of obsolescent knight-errantry because of the many terrible books about medieval chivalry he had read. Or take Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Flaubert is similarly keen to mention that she embarks on a series of reckless, disastrous, life-ruining affairs in large part because of the terrible romance novels she had read in her youth—books which had given her unreasonable expectations of what to expect from love and marriage. Likewise, Dante makes sure that we know that not only are Francesca and Paolo in Hell because they committed adultery but that their disastrous, life-ruining affair was in the first place incited by a bad book—in their case, and Old French romance about the love affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
As of 2021 the average human lifespan is 71 years. That is only 3,692 weeks. The average number of books printed in the world per year is approximately 600,000 to 1 million. Even if we read a book a week for our entire lives we will have read only a tiny fraction of the books that have ever been published since the invention of the printing press. This makes it all the more imperative that when we do choose to read, we choose wisely. The right choices lead to enlightenment, empowerment, personal development, and societal improvement. The wrong choices, according to Cervantes and Flaubert, lead to disaster—and for Dante, making the wrong choices in our reading can literally lead to Hell.